Connecticut during the War of 1812

By Kristina Dorsey

When five groups from southeastern Connecticut came together to create a commemoration of the War of 1812's bicenntenial, they first decided to fashion an exhibit.

Out of that notion came one for a companion book.

The resulting publication, "The Rockets' Red Glare - The War of 1812 and Connecticut," dives into the local history of the time and ties it to what was going on nationally and internationally.

Glenn S. Gordiner, the Robert G. Albion Historian at Mystic Seaport, was the primary author on the project, writing three chapters.

One of the aims of the book - and the accompanying exhibit, on view through Jan. 5 at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum - is to show the important role that the War of 1812 played in America's development.

"I knew this would be essentially a local market, so I wanted from the get-go to have the Connecticut experience cast within the national context," Gordinier says. "So that our people who are used to (the Battle of) Stonington and the (USS) Constitution and all of that would be thinking, 'Okay, this is only part of a much larger story.'

"I also wanted to put in the much larger context - which is what historians are usually interested in - of why did we go to war anyway? ... It seems ultimately to have boiled down to a sense of national impotence and a sense of our national pride being assaulted again and again."

Others in the organizing group wanted to make sure to include the impact of the war, too. The War of 1812 was something of a turning point for national identity, Gordinier says. In Connecticut, it affected the political and economic makeup of the state.

Gordinier did the main chronology for the book, and other authorities brought their expertise to bear.

Nancy H. Steenburg discovered in the New London Historical Society's vault historian and author Frances Manwaring Caulkins' essay on the Battle of Stonington. Fourteen years after the event, she interviewed people who fought off the British during that skirmish, and she visited the sites.

"That was a new voice. That was a take on the battle that no one had seen. We thought, let's use that as our telling of the Battle of Stonington," Gordinier says.

The book includes more about that battle, too, in James Tertius de Kay's chapter, with the author drawing from his book "The Battle of Stonington."

Other contributing authors for "The Rockets' Red Glare" include James Boylan, Meredith Brown, Fred Calabretta, Jerry Roberts, Matt Warshauer, and Andrew W. German. German was also the editor, and the Edward Baker served as the publisher for the historical society. Trish LaPointe was the designer.

"We had a local team that we knew would be first-rate," Gordinier says.

Gordinier had done his dissertation on the years leading up to the War of 1812, so he was familiar with the era. With this project, he says, "What was really great fun was to see these sources that we were not aware of, or only a few of us were aware of, come to the fore."

In addition to the Caulkins piece, that includes the journal of Samuel Goodrich, a militiaman who wrote eloquently about what it meant to be on the front lines at the banks of the Thames River; the journal of Silvanus Griswold of Waterford; and reports published in the Connecticut Gazette.

Gordinier hopes that readers will get a real sense of how intense the War of 1812 was here.

He says enemy warships "came up the Connecticut River. They came up the Mystic River. They bombarded Stonington. We were trying to kidnap British officers from Long Island. Just like (during) the Revolution, the Long Island Sound - the Connecticut Shore - was a theater of war."